Published in the Wall Street Journal – May 2013
Writing about the Amazons in “The Iliad,” Homer refers to them as antianeirai or “those who fight like men.” Legend says they were a tribe of fierce warrior-women who struck fear into the hearts of their enemies and who would not suffer men in their company, let alone trust men to fight alongside them. Is it time for the U.S. military to test that strategy?
As American forces were opened to women in recent decades, a line was drawn in 1994 with a rule barring them from infantry and other combat units. In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta formally lifted the rule. He gave the military services three years to seek exemptions if they wanted to keep some positions off-limits to women.
The military has begun researching how best to integrate women into these units. And as with any new initiative, there have been some hiccups. In late March, two female Marine Corps officers failed to complete the Corps’ Infantry Officer Course, as did the two pioneering women who last year became the first to attempt the grueling course.
While the branches research the initiative further, many male soldiers and Marines remain vehemently opposed to the integration. Many cite physical and physiological challenges that come with serving in the infantry. Carrying full combat loads, which often exceed 100 pounds, for 16 hours a day for an entire deployment wears down the hardiest men and will do worse damage to women.
Others believe that the presence of women will cause a rift in the traditional male bonding of combat-arms units and damage the cohesion that is a key element in the success of any battlefield unit. Many worry that men will have to pick up the slack if women cannot perform at the same level—or that floundering women will endanger themselves and their comrades.
Yet the tides of history seem to be turning against these sentiments and the questions of whether women can handle sustained combat operations. The issue is often framed now in terms of patriotism and human rights.
The service branches say that endurance and other standards won’t be lowered, and perhaps there will be special training programs to prepare women who wish to become infantry. Yet there may be a better way to bring them into combat units—one that could serve as a test and steppingstone toward tighter integration.
In professional sports and in the Olympics, men and women perform separately. In boot camp and officer-candidate schools—the entry points for all service members—men and women also are separated, with placement into different platoons within the same company.
So why not mirror what society at large and the military already do: put men and women into their own teams, with female infantry platoons on one side and male platoons on the other?
An all-female infantry platoon would not suffer from many of the problems that detractors cite, such as a lack of unit cohesion caused by mixing the sexes. Like the Amazons, female-only platoons could build their own brand of cohesion, which may prove superior to the men’s. The arrangement would also avoid putting male soldiers in the position of feeling obliged to compensate for an underperforming female.
While the all-female platoon solution would not compensate for physical and physiological differences and how they affect performance on the battlefield, it would be a good way to test that line of argument. If the female platoons showed that their combat performance equaled that of men, then the separated-platoon arrangement would merely be a step on the road to full integration. If the female platoons underperformed, then the idea of women in the infantry might need to be scrapped or the women-only platoons would be the final compromise, with their deployment based on battlefield needs.
A staged approach rather than rushing headlong into full integration in combat units may be the best approach. Once the right (or privilege) to serve in any military specialty is passed to women, it would be virtually impossible to change course, no matter the consequence or effect on combat effectiveness.
But who knows? Women running toward the sound of the guns may very well prefer fighting alongside other women—and their effectiveness may surprise even the most pessimistic. The Amazons certainly made an impression on the Greeks.
Mr. Luxenberg is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. His views do not represent those of the Defense Department or the Corps.